GRAVITY – an underestimated influence in child development

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By Yvonne Pilbeam.

Gravity is a force that we just don’t think about. But – from inside the womb, from the moment we are born, right up until the day we die, GRAVITY is the one constant force in our lives.  And – it is the one force that we move against – ALL THE TIME!

I was made aware of this and so much more when I read GRAVITY – A missing link in child development, written by a developmental specialist, Dr Melodie de Jager, a neuroscientist, Dr Oleg Efimov and a speech therapist, Victoria Efimova. Wow!  What a joy all the “new discoveries” were.  It helped me have a different perspective on so many things that have “bothered” me in the classroom over the years. I now have a better understanding of things that we just don’t recognise for being what they are, and more importantly, WHY… and WHAT can be done about them.  Gravity is phenomenal!

The authors of this book open our eyes to the HUGE influence Gravity has on our development and our relationship with our environment. I personally found it so exciting to FINALLY see why children, particularly when at school, do so many “odd” things. How many times do we, as teachers, tell some children in our classes to “stop slouching in your chair…stand up straight instead of leaning against the wall/desk/child beside you…stop holding your head when your ‘helping hand’ should be supporting/steadying the book that you are writing in…” According to De Jager et al. these are all symptoms of a faulty relationship with GRAVITY.

Inside the uterus, whenever the unborn baby moves about in the amniotic fluid, its vestibular system is becoming aware of direction – especially down. At a certain point in time, most babies will turn into a head-down position in preparation for birth. In most births, contractions of the uterus prepare the baby’s body to move from life in a fluid environment to life in an oxygen-filled environment.

 

This is a very simplistic explanation of a specialised process wherein any number of things can go wrong. However, despite medical and scientific explanations, GRAVITY is the BIG WELCOMING COMMITTEE!  We are all aware of Gravity, but we never really think about it. That is until we learn about Sir Isaac Newton and his famous words, “what goes up must come down” and we can all thank GRAVITY for this. All life – even plants on the surface of the Earth – would not look the same were it not for Gravity.

Gravity and the Vestibular System

In the first part of this book, GRAVITY – A missing link in child development, there are many medical terms; however, it is written in such a way that anyone can understand what is being discussed. For me, it was a “EUREKA” moment, when I became more aware of the role that Gravity and the vestibular system play in our overall development. According to De Jager et al.:

The vestibular system is found inside the head and it responds to changes in the position of the head. If the brain understands where the head is in relation to the feet, the child is able to navigate his position in space, and the vestibular system thus provides the brain with information about motion and spatial orientation. In addition, the vestibular system is involved with motor functions that allow the child to stabilise his head and body during movement, and to maintain his posture and balance in order to execute the skilful movements needed for skipping with a rope, writing and reading etc.

The latest neuroscience indicates that the vestibular system consists of two parts, the central vestibular system and the peripheral vestibular system:

  • The Central Vestibular System – four pairs of vestibular nuclei located in the neck to the left and right of the brain stem: the superior, lateral, medial and inferior nuclei
  • The Peripheral Vestibular System – ten organs, one set of five organs on each side of the head located in the inner ears. These five organs comprise two different components: the three semi-circular canals which indicate rotational movements; and the two otolith organs which indicate linear accelerations/movements [Saccule – up/down and Utricle – backwards/forwards]. Different receptors respond to different kinds of head acceleration and gravity – so we need all of them.

As teachers we are very aware of visual and/or hearing difficulties, or speech and language problems in the classroom and may even have taught children with cochlear implants. We may be fortunate enough to teach in a school that has classrooms suitably equipped for hard-of- hearing children, and thus we place learners where they will benefit most during teaching and learning. However, how do we manipulate Gravity?

This book, GRAVITY – A missing link in child development, states that “Gravity provides the baby with a starting point to develop physical, emotional and social skills, and most importantly, cognitive skills. From the moment he first puts his feet firmly on the ground, the baby has a physical starting point.”

Reading through this book, page after page, light bulbs will go on in your mind as you think of this child…then the next one…all who may be experiencing barriers to learning associated with an impaired vestibular function.

Our job is to teach the curriculum…but how does one do this when:

  • several children are struggling to sit upright (sitting upright is in direct opposition to GRAVITY)
  • several different children are struggling to listen attentively (when the inner ear is attempting to stabilise the head/neck in relation to GRAVITY)
  • some children are struggling to copy information from different sources (when the core muscles in the trunk are trying to stabilise and support the upper body which is engaging in weight shifting and subtle movements of the hands, arms and shoulders…again in opposition to the downward pull of GRAVITY)
  • every child is using his/her brain and trying to establish a solid relationship with GRAVITY.

According to these authors:

If a healthy relationship between the vestibular system and gravity is not present, concentration is divided, and the greater portion of concentration is paid to the physical component of an activity and the remaining portion of concentration is paid to the skills associated with an activity, with an obvious negative impact on learning.

Movement is Medicine

The second part of GRAVITY – A missing link in child development, is a teacher’s dream! Every time we attend a workshop or professional development talk, we want to come away with information that we can apply straight away – and that is exactly what the second part of this book does.

There are loads of physical games and practical activities that are grouped together to develop areas of difficulty that a child may be experiencing. I particularly liked the fact that through “fun, physical movement” all the child’s senses and muscles are developed with the intention of developing foundational skills leading to more advanced movement patterns. Sensory-integration, sensory-motor integration, spatial orientation, synchronism, duration and accuracy of movement are aligned with confidence and co-ordination. Jean Ayres, an Occupational Therapist is quoted in the book as saying, “Sensory integration is the neurological process that organises sensations from one’s own body and from the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment.”

Physical movement is seen as “medicine”! I especially liked this quote:

A child who appears to be hyperactive may have not moved enough to find his STOP button.

 

As pre-primary teachers, foundation phase teachers, intermediate phase teachers and even high school teachers, we may well be thinking: “Well, babies and developmental milestones have nothing to do with my job.” In fact, CHILDREN, no matter their age, ARE OUR ”JOB”. A problematic relationship with GRAVITY is going to undermine every aspect of a child’s life.

This book, GRAVITY – A missing link in child development, is filled with practical ideas and solutions to help teachers ensure that EVERYONE benefits from their day at school. I would highly recommend that every school and teacher purchase a copy of this book and keep it as a classroom resource. There are 22 chapters including:

  • Muscle tone and movement
  • Gravity and the eyes
  • Motion sickness
  • Writing , Reading, Maths
  • Gadgets and Cognition

There is something for everyone – if you are just starting your teaching career , an experienced teacher, or if you are a parent or therapist, there will be aspects of this book that will encourage you to read further, and possibly investigate the different options available to enable every child to experience success.

De Jager, M., Efimov, O. and Efimova, V. 2020. GRAVITY – A missing link in child development. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute Publishing.